Justin Jefferson just got done having one of the best rookie seasons any wide receiver has ever had. Despite not becoming a regular starter until Week 3, Jefferson finished the year with 88 catches for 1,400 yards (a rookie record) and seven touchdowns.
Given his age (he turned 22 years old in June), the Vikings’ investment in him (he was a first-round pick, No. 22 overall), the depth chart (he counts only Adam Thielen among his target competition), and his talent (he’s a superb route runner who showed he is more than capable of playing both in the slot and out wide, and winning on the release, on the stem, and at the catch point), it’s natural to assume he’ll just keep getting better.
Our own Pete Prisco has very high hopes for Jefferson this season, for example. “He is going to be the best receiver in the National Football League by the end of this year,” Prisco said. “I think Jefferson is the real deal. His receivers coach, Keenan McCardell, said by the end of this season, Jefferson will be the best receiver in the NFL. You can take it to the bank.”
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Former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback (and All Things Covered co-host) Bryant McFadden echoed Prisco’s sentiments, saying Jefferson’s skill set is unique in that he runs the gridiron like he’s playing basketball and “it’s hard to study a guy like him as a defensive back.”
“Best receiver in the NFL” is certainly a high plane to reach. Does Jefferson have the talent to get there? Possibly. The opportunity? Probably, although he does still play for a relatively low-volume passing team that also plays at a slow pace.
But he’s also not the first wide receiver to have a great rookie season and enter his sophomore campaign with sky-high expectations. There are plenty of players from the recent (and not-so-recent) past to which we can compare him, to see what might be a reasonable baseline of production for Jefferson in Year 2. To do this, we took a look at the top 20 rookie seasons in catches, from Anquan Boldin to Joey Galloway, and peered into the future at what they did during their second year in the NFL.
|Player||Year 1||Rec||Tgt||Yds||TD||Year 2||Rec||Tgt||Yds||TD|
|Odell Beckham Jr.||2014||91||130||1305||12||2015||96||158||1450||13|
It’s notable that there was a slight drop-off from Year 1 to Year 2 among this group, much of it unsurprisingly driven by injury. To have as good (or even close to as good) a rookie season as Jefferson did, you have to stay healthy. But it’s tough to stay healthy every year in the NFL, so it’s not all that shocking that several of these players (Boldin and Glenn, for example) dealt with various issues that kept their numbers down in the year following their rookie breakout. Some of them (like Royal and Clayton) just could not repeat the results they had in that first year, which ended up being the best of their respective careers.
Some managed to improve on their debut seasons, like Thomas and Beckham. That duo currently ranks among just nine players in modern NFL history (i.e. since the AFL-NFL merger) to begin their career with back-to-back 1,000-plus-yard receiving seasons. The others are Colston, Cooper, Evans, Moss, A.J. Brown, A.J. Green, and John Jefferson.
It’s tempting to lump Justin Jefferson in with that group, because his talent is so immense. It’s also worth noting that even if he experiences the same drop-off as the average receiver in the group of 20 above, he’d still finish his second season with 87 catches for 1,349 yards and four touchdowns (assuming he stays healthy and after accounting for the 17th game this season). That’s still, uh, really good. If that counts as a step backward, I think the Vikings would be just fine with the type of player he’s turning into.
There’s no doubt that Jefferson’s ceiling is immense, and he has the potential to improve upon what he did last year. But progress isn’t always linear, and even if he takes a small step backward or laterally, he’s still got the skill set to be a really terrific player.